The French New Wave unquestionably brought fresh energies to American cinema in the early 1970s. Suddenly every second film found its heroes jump-cutting madly from one frayed narrative to the next. At its best, in movies such as Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces , the collision produced a class of high art that also found a (smallish) spot in the mainstream. But it also led to a very precise class of post-hippie indulgence.
A film such as Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens could only have been made between 1969 and 1974. The loose-limbed plotting and taste for showy decadence summon up the era as accurately as do bellbottoms and the Banana Splits. None of which is to suggest that it's not worth disinterring. The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) is less shapely and more obscure in its moral purpose than Five Easy Pieces, but its funky energies still catch the eye.
The film begins with a famous sequence in which Jack Nicholson, playing a radio host , speaks sombrely about his grandfather to his patient listeners. Later, he is lured to Atlantic City, where his brother (Bruce Dern) is attempting to set up some sort of real estate deal. As they fail to make any meaningful headway in the deal, The brothers rub up against Scatman Crothers's hoodlum and engage with a characteristically crackers Ellen Burstyn.
The film doesn't really have anything you could call a plot, but its determination to improvise around every available theme creates a very engaging class of cinematic jazz. Play close attention and you will note the nods towards Atlantic City's reputation as the place where Monopoly was invented. Jason goes to jail. There are various attempts to buy a hotel.
Indeed, you could argue that Atlantic City is the most significant character in the film. At this stage the New Jersey locale has a shabby grace before it embraced the Disney understanding of a gaming resort. Just a glance brings one back to the fag-end of the Nixon era. It’s film as time machine, and very charming it is too.